“the power of a discourse that is never open to reply”

Uttering the unacceptable in prose and exploring the elusive, not-yet-captured depth of things in poetry have in common the crucial recognition that we shan’t learn about ourselves or our world – including our political world – if we are prevented from hearing things to argue with and things that leave us frustrated and (in every sense) wondering. Our current panics about ‘offence’ are at their best and most generous an acknowledgement of how language can encode and enact power relations (my freedom of ‘offending’ speech may be your humiliation, a confirmation of your exclusion from ordinary public discourse). But at its worst it is a patronising and infantilising worry about protecting individuals from challenge; the inevitable end of that road is a far worse entrenching of unquestionable power, the power of a discourse that is never open to reply. Debates about international issues like Israel and Palestine, or issues of social and personal morals – abortion, gender and sexuality, end of life questions – are regularly shadowed by anxiety, even panic, about what must not be said in public, and also by the sometimes startlingly coercive insistence on the ‘rational’ and canonical status of one perspective only. On both sides of all such debates, there can be a deep unwillingness to have things said or shown that might profoundly challenge someone’s starting assumptions. If there is an answer to this curious contemporary neurosis, it is surely not in the silencing of disagreement but in the education of speech: how is unwelcome truth to be told in ways that do not humiliate or disable? And the answer to that question is inseparable from learning to argue – from the actual practice of open exchange, in the most literal sense ‘civil’ disagreement, the debate appropriate to citizens who have dignity and liberty to discuss their shared world and its organisation and who are able to learn what their words sound like in the difficult business of staying with such a debate as it unfolds.

Rowan Williams